Musician of the Month: Pegasus Chamber Choir
When did Pegasus Chamber Choir form?
Pegasus originated as an ad hoc choir formed by a group of ex-Cambridge choral friends. Our first concert was at Robinson College, whose college crest is a flying horse – hence our name! We established ourselves in London with a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in 1995, and quickly expanded our membership, giving concerts on a semi-regular basis, sometimes for music societies, sometimes for charity. By the time Matthew Altham became our principal conductor in 2001, we had a calendar of half a dozen or more concerts every year, and we’ve kept on getting busier!
What makes Pegasus unique?
We like to think that there are several characteristics of the choir that, taken together, make us unlike other ensembles. First, not only does our repertoire range from medieval to the contemporary – we’ve premiered works by composers such as Thomas Adès and Francis Grier – but we take part in performances other than conventional concerts. For example, we’ve sung on stage at the Coliseum as part of a choreographed work by Carlos Acosta, we performed on Channel 4 in Jonathan Dove’s television opera about Princess Diana, When She Died, and we’ve taken part in competitions in Britain and across Europe.
Second, we don’t rehearse every week like many choirs: instead, we have about three intensive rehearsals before each concert. Finally, new singers join us through the recommendation of current members, rather than by auditions. We like that personal connection as a way of bringing in new people.
What do you like the most about performing Handel?
The challenges of performing Handel are inseparable from the sheer pleasure that the music gives, and that must be as true for choirs as it is for soloists. Handel’s word-setting can be deceptively simple: on the page, the harmonies of a chorus like “Surely he hath borne our griefs” are pretty straightforward, but in performance they can become incredibly moving. One of the things that’s rewarding with music as well known as Handel’s is to try and find a way to make it fresh – not just for us but for our audiences. That will be our task when we perform Messiah for Handel House next March!
How do you coordinate the runs and fugues that we so frequently encounter in Handel’s choral works?
Handel writes brilliantly for vocal ensembles: the music may be technically difficult, but it’s not impossible. Still, no matter how often you’ve sung a work like Dixit Dominus, you know you’ll have to work hard to prepare the next performance: it doesn’t sing itself! When we face particularly tricky vocal lines – long, fast runs, for example – Matthew may rehearse them slowly and gradually speed them up, or he may isolate two of the vocal parts, e.g. sopranos and basses, to make sure we’re really listening to each other. It’s not enough to have everyone within a single section articulating the notes together: you have to be perfectly coordinated with parallel lines in other parts of the choir as well.
What is the choir’s favourite piece to perform and why?
I think Pegasus’s members would find it hard to agree on a single favourite chorus or work by Handel. There are too many works to choose from and such diversity within them. But a work by another composer that we’ve performed many times in the past few years is O Magnum Mysterium by Morton Lauridsen, a contemporary American composer. He writes in a very expressive, somewhat Romantic style, with long vocal lines that are glorious to sing, and slow-moving harmonies that use dissonance to very expressive, almost mystical effect. O Magnum Mysterium is a Christmas motet, but we’ve also performed it at weddings and memorial services, and it was the work we sang on stage at the Coliseum while Carlos Acosta and Zenaida Yanowsky danced among us. It stunned the audience, and wherever we perform it, people are visibly moved. It’s a great work, and I think we don’t ever get tired of singing it.